The Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed the first concert of its first subscription season at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 19, 1887 at the Detroit Opera House. The conductor was Rudolph Speil. He was succeeded in subsequent seasons by a variety of conductors until 1900 when Hugo Kalsow was appointed and served until the orchestra ceased operations in 1910.
Then in 1914 ten young Detroit society women each contributed $100 and pledged to find 100 additional subscribers to donate $10 to support the symphony. They organized quickly, hiring Weston Gales, a 27-year-old church organist from Boston, as music director. The orchestra's first concert took place at the old Detroit Opera House on February 26, 1914.
Gales left his position in 1917 and was succeeded the following year by renowned Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. A friend to composers Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and son-in-law of famed American writer Mark Twain, Gabrilowitsch brought instant credibility to the DSO.
Building Orchestra Hall
On April 22, 1919, readers of The Detroit News learned that the old Westminster Presbyterian Church had been purchased by the Detroit Symphony Society. Then suddenly, the old church was gone. From the space created by its demolition–and even upon some of its foundations to save time – Orchestra Hall rose to new life in only four months and twenty-three days during that extraordinary summer of 1919.
The Society had offered Ossip Gabrilowitsch, famed Russian pianist and music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, an extension of his contract, but Gabrilowisch agreed to accept the position only on the condition that a concert hall worthy of the orchestra be built. Designed by noted architect C. Howard Crane, Orchestra Hall celebrated its inaugural concert on October 23, 1919.
As noted in the program for the last concert of the 1918-1919 season: “The new hall not only fills a demand, but marks a new era in the annals of musical history in Detroit. It will be the center of Detroit’s musical life.” And for the next twenty years, Orchestra Hall, the DSO and Gabrilowitsch enjoyed an artistic golden era in which the hall played host to the world’s most famous composers, conductors and performers. But by 1939, three years after Gabrilowitsch’s premature death, wracked by the Great Depression and encumbered with debt, the Orchestra left the Hall for the economy and promise of Masonic Auditorium.
The Roaring '20s & beyond
During the early 1920s, the DSO fast became one of the finest and most prominent orchestras in the country. Over the next two decades, the orchestra performed with spectacular guest artists such as Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Marian Anderson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Jascha Heifetz, Pablo Casals and others.
In 1922, Gabrilowitsch led the orchestra and guest pianist Artur Schnabel in the world's first radio broadcast of a symphonic concert on WWJ-AM. The DSO performed at New York's Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1928 and, also that year, made their first recording. In 1934, the DSO became the nation's first official radio broadcast orchestra, performing for millions of Americans over the airwaves on the Ford Symphony Hour national radio show until 1942.
Following Gabrilowitsch's death in 1936, the DSO entered into a troubled time in which financial difficulties forced the orchestra to disband twice and move from Orchestra Hall to a succession of three different Detroit venues. The final move, in 1956, was to Ford Auditorium, which remained their home for the next 33 years. By this time, Paul Paray was Music Director and the orchestra was enjoying a golden era in which they had become one of the country's most recorded orchestras, making 70 records over 11 years, many award-winning, for the Mercury label.
The Paradise: Detroit's Apollo Theater
After the Detroit Symphony Orchestra left Orchestra Hall in 1939, the stage was empty for two years, until Christmas Eve 1941, when new owners Ben and Lou Cohen reopened Orchestra Hall as the Paradise Theater. The very place that Detroit audiences once went to hear Prokofiev, Gershwin and Horowitz began featuring contemporary talent such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey.
The theater’s name was taken from Paradise Valley, the area just east of Woodward Avenue, home to a large percentage of Detroit’s African-American community and to the principal black entertainment district at St. Antoine and Adams streets. The Paradise became a celebrated club, offering the best in jazz, bebop and blues. The theater was as important to Detroit as the Apollo Theater was to Harlem.
This golden era came to a close in 1951 when The Paradise closed, another casualty of the waning big band era. Today, the memory of the Paradise Theater lives on through the Paradise Jazz Series and other jazz programs, which continue Orchestra Hall’s distinguished tradition of featuring the best jazz musicians from around the world. The Paradize Jazz Series is currently led by Terence Blanchard, the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair.
A Temporary Home, A Growing Reputation
Following Gabrilowitsch's death in 1936, the DSO entered into a troubled time in which financial difficulties forced the orchestra to disband twice and move from Orchestra Hall to a succession of three different Detroit venues. In 1951 Detroit’s leading corporations each pledged $10,000, paving the way for the DSO to resume operations in celebration of the city’s 250th anniversary. Five years later, the DSO moved into its new riverfront home at Ford Auditorium. By this time, Paul Paray was Music Director and the orchestra was enjoying a golden era in which they had become one of the country's most recorded orchestras, making 70 records over 11 years, many award-winning, for the Mercury label. Beyond the concert hall, the DSO’s signature sound could be heard in the backgrounds of dozens of Motown hits. Paray stepped down as Music Director in 1963 and was followed by a number of internationally renowned directors including Sixten Ehrling, Aldo Ceccato, Antal Dorati and Günther Herbig.
Saving and Restoring Orchestra Hall
Once an acoustical legend, Orchestra Hall fell into disrepair after the Paradise Theater closed. By 1970, the building was slowly but surely becoming a ruin—peeling paint, cracked and crumbling plaster, rotting carpet and draperies. Few gave much hope that the hall could be saved. When word came that this once venerable concert hall was headed for the wrecking ball so the lot could be used for a new department store, local citizens led by former DSO bassoonist (and current Trustee) Paul Ganson rallied to save the great concert hall. Following a series of marches and sidewalk benefit performances, musicians and friends of the DSO succeeded in saving Orchestra Hall from demolition.
The task of saving Orchestra Hall was anything but an overnight success. With months of work, millions of dollars and the help of hundreds of skilled crafts persons, the hall underwent a major restoration and renovation. The replacement of decorative plasterwork required the reproduction of hundreds of delicate designs in many sizes, some of which, while appearing the same in all respects were actually configured differently for the left and right sides of the Hall. Additionally, the building’s exquisite architectural details and decorative painting were replicated.
Old photos and historical documents were studied and C. Howard Crane’s original notes and sketches were consulted in an effort to maintain the building’s integrity. Finally after 20 years of restoration, the expense of $6.8 million and thousands of donated hours, the DSO triumphantly moved back into its historic home in 1989. On opening night, Yo-Yo Ma joined the DSO in front of a sold-out crowd.
One year later, the DSO back in its home, acclaimed and jovial Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi began a fifteen year partnership with the orchestra. Maestro Järvi and the DSO made more than 40 recordings in their fifteen years together, embarked on multiple tours to Europe and Asia, and garnered acclaim from packed audiences and critics worldwide.
A New Era: The Max M. Fisher Music Center
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra entered a new era on October 11, 2003 with the opening of The Max M. Fisher Music Center. “The Max” became a new music center complex combining the restored and modernized Orchestra Hall (the Orchestra's home once again since 1989) and a 135,000-square-foot facility that includes The Music Box (a 450-seat second performance hall with variable configurations), the Jacob Bernard Pincus Music Education Center (which supports the DSO’s Civic Youth Ensembles and other educational activities), and additional performance, backstage, administrative, and rental spaces.
Directly behind The Max is the Detroit School of Arts, completed in 2005. This magnet public high school and broadcast technology complex also features the home of WRCJ 90.9 FM, Detroit’s classical and jazz music station managed by Detroit Public Television.
The opening of The Max sparked the development of Woodward Avenue and Detroit's Midtown neighborhood that continues today. New commercial, residential, educational and cultural facilities are opening all around The Max at a pace unrivaled in modern Detroit history.
As The Max ushered in a new era, it also marked the end of another: acclaimed and jovial Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, Music Director of the DSO since 1990, stepped down from his post at the end of 2005. Esteemed conductor Leonard Slatkin, called "America’s Music Director" by The Los Angeles Times, became the DSO’s 12th Music Director in 2008 and conductor, trumpeter, and arranger Jeff Tyzik was appointed Principal Pops Conductor in 2012.
While the DSO's home remains at The Max and in Orchestra Hall, its commitment to accessibility brings it to venues all across southeast Michigan through its Neighborhood Residency Initiative and to music lovers worldwide via the free Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series at dso.org/live, the only such offering by any orchestra on the planet.